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After 16 years with lapsed power plant permit, Ameren’s new wastewater proposal gets public hearing

Ameren Missouri's Labadie Energy Center next to the Missouri River
Labadie Environmental Organization

Updated on 2/17/15:

Ameren’s coal-fired power plant in Labadie has been operating under an expired wastewater discharge permit since 1999.

In fact, all of Ameren's plants in the St. Louis area have expired National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits: Meramec's lapsed in 2005, and Rush Island's and Sioux's in 2009.

Ameren submitted its first permit renewal application for Labadie in 1998, and although the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has produced several draft permits since then, it has never finalized any of them.

The state agency says it's been waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize part of the federal Clean Water Act. That happened in May.

Tuesday night, the state is hosting a public meeting to talk about its latest permit proposal.

According to the MDNR, “the hearing is to understand and discuss public concerns about the Labadie Energy Center’s Missouri state operating permit renewal, which authorizes the discharge of wastewater from the facility.”

Local environmental groups have argued that toxic contaminants from the Labadie power plant's coal ash ponds ― like mercury, arsenic and lead ― are polluting Missouri’s rivers and groundwater.

Every day, millions of gallons of untreated wastewater from the plant's two coal ash ponds flow into the Missouri River ― the source of drinking water for many St. Louis area residents.

And one of those ash ponds has been leaking since 1992.

Patricia Schuba has lived in Labadie for most of her life. "My nephew is 15 years old," Schuba said. "That discharge permit is 15 years expired. So, it’s conceivable that our children could grow up over the period of time that there’s been no strong regulation of these leaking ash ponds."

Most Franklin County residents get their drinking water from groundwater wells.

Now the state has issued a new draft permit. But environmental advocates say it's not much of an improvement.

The new permit does call for some groundwater monitoring but only around the unlined coal ash pond, not the lined one, as required under the new federal coal ash rule.

This pipe, described as "outfall #002" in the proposed Labadie permit, discharges wastewater from the power plant's two coal ash ponds into the Missouri River.
Credit Missouri Department of Natural Resources
This pipe, described as "outfall #002" in the proposed Labadie permit, discharges wastewater from the power plant's two coal ash ponds into the Missouri River.

Wastewater from the ponds would only need to be tested for a limited set of contaminants, like boron and sulfate (see the table on p.7 of this pdf, under "outfall #002"). Ameren would not be required to monitor for toxic metals, like cadmium or selenium, nor would it have to limit discharges of anything other than total suspended solids, pH (acidity), and oil and grease.

Lastly, environmentalists say the new permit does not go far enough to protect aquatic life, like the endangered pallid sturgeon. Fish can get caught up in the plant's outdated cooling water intake system, or harmed by the more than one billion gallons a day of hot water the plant releases into the Missouri River. Under the terms of the permit, Ameren would not have to upgrade that system for at least another five years.

In a written statement, Ameren Corporation's senior director of environmental services, Steve Whitworth, said the company has always supported the goal of protecting Missouri's waterways and will continue working closely with state regulators. "Labadie Energy Center complies with current permit requirements designed to preserve and protect the environment and will continue to do so in the future while producing the vital energy needed for our state," Whitworth said.

Tuesday’s public hearing is scheduled to run from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1121 Columbus Lane, in Washington, Mo. Here's what's on the agenda.

The public also can submit written comments to state regulators about Ameren's proposed Labadie wastewater discharge permit through March 3.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience